The value of threat reduction

The value of threat reduction

Before Sept. 11, much of the security at U.S. ports focused on the detection of economic contraband and hidden cargo. Various methods were used to identify and confiscate illegal goods and to levy appropriate tariffs on legal, hidden goods.

Post-Sept. 11 priorities have shifted significantly. Economic contraband is no longer the driver of port security initiatives. Instead, the government's main focus is to mitigate threats by detecting and intercepting nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological and explosive weapons of mass effect (WME). The benefit of identifying economic contraband and potential revenue considerations should not become an oversight.

The opportunity to curb the flow of contraband and levy appropriate taxes on items entering the country should be viewed as a welcomed byproduct of improved port security. Consider statistics cited by Peter J. Scrobe, vice president of the American International Agency, and from a 2001 FIA International Research Ltd. report:

-- Annual cargo crime losses are estimated at $10 billion to $20 billion domestically (Scrobe).

-- Contraband tobacco is a major profit center for international organized crime groups. The global market for smuggled cigarettes results in an estimated $16 billion a year in lost tax revenue. About one-tenth of those losses are incurred in the U.S. (FIA).

-- American manufacturers are believed to lose $200 billion a year worldwide because of counterfeit versions of their products (FIA).

Despite these statistics, some developers of detection technology have thrown their hands up at the prospect of identifying economic contraband along with WME. However, if there is no revenue potential or possibility of adding value through cargo scanning, there is little hope the U.S. will attain its goal of scanning 100 percent of boxes entering U.S. ports.

While current port security technologies are a step in the right direction, they fail on multiple fronts. The two most common techniques for identifying WME are radiation portal monitors and X-ray scanners.

To identify WME, thresholds for radiation portal monitors must be set so low that common items such as kitty litter and ceramic tiles can set them off. This results in false positives. The Port of New York and New Jersey, for example, reports 150 false positives each day. Opening and searching each container can be a slow, expensive process and potentially delay the flow of commerce.

X-ray scanners are no more effective. Current scanners take a two-dimensional black-and-white image of container contents. It is up to a Customs agent to interpret the image. Simple shielding of materials can hide WME and other contraband.

If a catastrophic event were to close a major U.S. port, the economic impact could reach $1 billion a day.

To effectively protect U.S. borders from WME shipped in cargo containers while recovering some of the estimated annual cargo crime losses, fundamental new approaches to cargo scanning are necessary.

Scanners must provide:

-- High throughput. Based on the sheer volume of containers, scanners must be able to accurately process a container in a minute or less.

-- An automated "picture" of all contents within a container. There are telltale signs of WME that cannot be detected through an X-ray or radiation emissions. Economic contraband also can be concealed from these types of detection techniques.

-- The ability to scan 100 percent of cargo with low false positives.

Imagine a port with technology to meet these criteria. Every container entering the port would be fully scanned and the exact information about the contents would be identified. This information immediately could be cross-checked against the container manifest to identify suspect cargo. Suspect cargo would mean the detection of WME or boxes of cigarettes in a shipment only supposed to contain electronics. Customs would be able to find contraband quickly or pull the container aside to check for more potentially devastating contents.

There are millions of cargo containers in use at any given moment. By developing and deploying the appropriate technology, it is plausible to minimize the threat of smuggled WME while providing a financial incentive to scan all containers entering a port.